MPs raise alarm on Ministry of Justice’s “Transforming Probation” programme

Public Accounts Committee says department is unable to evidence reforms' success and significant challenges remain

By Jim Dunton

23 Sep 2016

The Ministry of Justice is unable to demonstrate that wide-ranging reforms to the way offender rehabilitation services are run are a success, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee have warned in their latest report.

Members also said that so-called Community Rehabilitation Companies introduced to the system as part of the “Transforming Probation” reforms faced significant barriers, including delays in accessing the National Offender Management Service ICT system. 

The PAC said that although the new regime was aimed at saving £12bn over seven years, the ICT issues alone had so far required compensation payments of more than £20m from the department.

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Their findings build on a National Audit Office report from April, which found that Transforming Probation’s splitting of services between the privately-owned CRCs and the National Probation Service had resulted in “unsurprising frictions” between public and private-sector staff.

The MoJ announced its "rehabilitation revolution" in 2012, and in June 2014 it split 35 probation trusts into a the NPS and 21 new CRCs. The public sector NPS now advises courts on sentencing all offenders and manages those presenting higher risks. CRCs supervise offenders presenting a low- of medium-risk of harm.

However, the PAC said that more than two years into the transformation, there was no clear data on how the new arrangements were performing, and none was expected to be available until the end of 2017.

Committee chair Meg Hillier said the MoJ had set itself an ambitious target for the programme, which was still a work in progress at a time when the department was looking to halve its administration costs and drive reforms to the courts and prisons services.

“We are disappointed that, given the human and economic costs of reoffending, gaps in data mean the overall effectiveness of the reforms cannot be properly assessed,” she said.

“Reintegrating offenders with the community is vitally important yet the quality of arrangements to support this is patchy. 

“There is also a continued failure to provide hard-pressed probation staff with adequate computer systems.”

The PAC said there was a wide variation in the quality of arrangements to provide continuity between rehabilitation within prison and the community, and that CRCs’ “through the gate” services had not gone as well as the MoJ and NOMS had wanted. 

They added that despite original aspirations for a wide variety of CRC providers, including mutual and charities, all but one of the CRCs was run by a private operator. MPs said the MoJ’s stance of being “deliberately unprescriptive” on how services should be delivered made it hard to evaluate their success.

“CRCs are expected to fund innovative programmes through their general resources,” the report said. 

“It is not clear to us how far this is actually happening. The ministry is reviewing the contracts with CRCs and considering what it should do to ensure that they create the right incentives for service delivery now, rather than relying just on a payment-by-results outcome in a few years’ time.”

MPs also warned that despite the importance of joint working across probation services, the relevant ICT systems were “inefficient, unreliable and hard to use”. 

They singled out NOMS’ nDelius case management system as a particular source of frustration that put "added pressure on hard-pressed staff”, and highlighted a £23m compensation payment made to CRCs by the ministry over delays in providing an access gateway to the NOMS ICT system.

Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the PAC report appeared to indicate that services were getting worse, increasing the risk to the public and letting down staff in the process

“The break-up of the public probation service was supposed to turn lives around, reduce reoffending and make us all safer,” he said.

“Even though the probation watchdog waited more than a year for the new arrangements to bed down before carrying out local inspections, the reports we have seen show that the quality of work has declined.

“The Howard League warned that ministers were taking a huge risk by dismantling a service that was performing well. We remain of that view.”

Justice minister Sam Gyimah said a comprehensive review of the probation service was being undertaken, with the aim of improving outcomes for offenders and communities.

“Public protection is our top priority and we will not hesitate to take the necessary action to make sure our vital reforms are being delivered to reduce reoffending, cut crime and prevent future victims,” he said.

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